The community running on empty: In Liverpool, the relationship between artists and developers has not lived up to its early promise of turning hundreds of Victorian buildings in the city centre into a thriving 'cultural quarter'. Rosie Millard reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AUGUST 1992. Wanted: buyer with ready cash and enthusiasm for 388 large Victorian buildings in centre of Liverpool, many with resident artist. Interest in creating a cultural base desirable but not essential.

In 1990, when a property developer looked at the decaying city centre as an artistic enterprise zone, the city council jumped at the idea, and sold all 80 acres for pounds 10m. And so the vision of the Creative Industries Quarter was realised; people were taken along to the crumbling brick buildings and encouraged to imagine galleries, recording studios and photographic darkrooms, amid pavement cafes and chic wine bars. The arts establishment promised that great investment would soon follow the developers, Charterhouse Estates (initiators of the Alaska project in London, see above).

Walking around the quarter, it's not hard to get a taste of the original idea; the vast warehouses, which lead down to the river, have an elegant grandeur. But as the artists slowly began to move in, signs that all was not well with Charterhouse began to appear. Their showcase office was turned into a bridal wear shop; letters were left unanswered, contracts unsigned. And a couple of weeks ago, the receivers were called in; Charterhouse was formally declared insolvent with debts of up to pounds 26m, and the whole quarter is up for sale again.

The developers say that investors were slow in coming forward, and that their main shareholder, the National Rivers Authority, lost patience. However, as far as the artists are concerned, sitting on a pile of dilapidated warehouses while the visionaries retreat hastily back down the M6, it's a death blow to the tentative optimism felt in Liverpool at the end of the Eighties. 'We looked to Glasgow and Sheffield, who have revitalised their local arts cultures, and wanted to be like them,' said John Brady, whose forthcoming city arts festival, VisionFest, was due to use the Cultural Quarter for 30 per cent of its exhibitions. 'Charterhouse bought the property, branded the image but had no enabling funds to make the area a practising quarter. It's not enough to buy derelict buildings and call it Portobello.'

It seems that Charterhouse were so intent on waiting for the big investor that they would not commit themselves to the resident artists; as one gallery owner, kept waiting for a non- existent lease agreement for over two years, piquantly put it: 'This building could now be leased to a dog-food factory, for all I know.' The developers admit that more could have been done: 'On our drawing-boards there are some wonderful ideas, but there were no bricks laid at all in Liverpool,' a spokesman said. 'We were waiting for things to turn.'

But why invest, why pursue the vision, it you aren't sure when things will 'turn', ask the locals. 'There was no evidence anyone knew what was going on,' says Eddie Berg, director of Moviola, Liverpool's video and electronic arts organisation. 'If Roger Zogolovitch (director of Charterhouse Estates) had a vision, he wasn't sharing it with anyone. It's a missed opportunity, which a lot of people were prepared to spend time making work.'

Ab Rogers, a furniture designer, stood despondently outside a warehouse in Parr Street, just below Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral. 'Apparently it was where the Lord Mayor used to stable his horses,' he said. 'Anyway, it's a beautiful, solid building.' He waved an impressive-looking document. It was entitled 'Long-Term Aims' and showed the plans of his company, Ahead Ahead, to form a permanent 'multi-design practice' in the Charterhouse-owned building. As well as exhibition space, their intentions were to have visiting speakers, a college workshop, and a restaurant, and to 'bring public attention to the talents of young designers in Liverpool'. Ahead Ahead were so confident that they offered to rent the building on a 20-year lease; Charterhouse consistently refused to send them a price list, or to sign any agreement, even for one year. 'One day I called, and the whole thing was off,' said Rogers. 'Even if they were having difficulties in finding investors, they should have let us go on, so at least we would have something to offer now.'

Perhaps, like so many things forced to look to their own resources, the arts in Liverpool will survive this latest knock; 'People don't care now about Charterhouse, or the Cultural Quarter, for that matter,' said Eddie Berg. 'Being an artist here is a bit like living in South America, with a different leader every six months. You just get on with it.'

'It's not new, this feeling of being abandoned,' said Richard Roberts, a painter currently paying his studio rent to the receivers. 'It's all part of the fun of living in Liverpool.'